SHELLTOWN -- This thatch of land mocks maps. So a visitor follows the thirsty corn and the granite tombstones bearing family names like MARINER and FRESHWATER. Stapled to a nearby telephone pole is a sign: FREE SUSHI AT BOAT RAMP! Getting warmer.
Hogs the size of hippos and chicken condos are other landmarks. At the Baptist Church, turn left and follow the Dead End sign to waterman Fred Maddox's home in this shell of an Eastern Shore town. Park on the dented grass by the state government cars and TV satellite trucks.
Take a number.
Earlier this month, 10,000 bait fish went belly-up in the Pocomoke River, an inky capillary feeding the Chesapeake Bay. Normally, a kill that size wouldn't warrant a full-court media press. But these dead fish were different, scary different. These fish had lesions. Then, watermen got sick -- some with the same strange sores.
"Some people think they're going to wake up one morning with half their body ate away," says Corp. Danny Tyler with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. "They're going to have to figure out what this is."
The fish tale lured scientists, bureaucrats, graduate students and a legion of reporters who quickly abandoned their maps. Having found Shelltown, the nation looked deep into the brackish, blackish water, as if staring under the hood of a damaged car.
"Put us on the map," says Fred Maddox. "I don't know if that's good or bad."
Then, fish stopped dying, and the nation left Shelltown. But the mystery would soon widen. This week, dead fish dotted neighboring Virginia waters. Then health advisories were posted Wednesday for Somerset and Worcester counties, as anglers in the Choptank and Chester rivers also reported fish with lesions. The mystery had moved upstream.
Something is still in the water. And as Tyler says, we got to figure it out. Some people are scared to eat local seafood or go swimming or crabbing. Right or wrong, the lower Chesapeake has become a hot zone.
Beyond the daily news, scientific toil and mauled fish on parade, a native drama is re-enacted. You know the story, or do you? Something rotten happens to the Bay -- storm, disease, fish kill -- and people from all walks of thought get hurled together.
Good can come from these collisions. But mistrust and misunderstanding can be exposed in vintage match-ups: the state vs. the watermen; watermen vs. farmers; farmers vs. environmentalists; environmentalists vs. the state. And the ultimate show-stopper: Man vs. Nature.
This month's drama on the Chesapeake will drag on, as people who live and work together try to come together for a common good.
Something outside the water has to give.
All roads lead to Fred W. Maddox & Sons Seafood business -- the nerve and news center of the initial fish kill on the Pocomoke. The 72-year-old Maddox is the elder statesman in Shelltown -- its unofficial mayor.
Dead fish or not, Maddox goes about his seafood business, hauling up 1,000 crab pots daily along side his son, Ray. The senior Maddox has the gnarled, powerful forearms and stooped shoulders of a veteran waterman. His neck is terrapin-tough; his lips chapped beyond concern.
When Maddox talks, people listen. When he doesn't talk, people listen. He's old enough to know everybody and smart enough to know he doesn't know everything.
"He's got quite a following," says his daughter-in-law, Lori Maddox.
In short, Fred Maddox is a good man to have during a fish kill. He has allowed scientists to camp on his property. The aquatic M*A*S*H units rely not only on Maddox's hospitality but on his electricity. Cables run from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources' Field Station to Maddox's business.
The scientists don't pretend to know how to make a living from the river. The watermen don't pretend to know exactly what the scientists are doing with their thermometers and Superfrost Microscope Slides. But here they are, together, in close quarters.
Does a fish kill make a sound if no one is around to hear it? Yes and no, which is why Maddox gives a wide berth to science -- and the press. He knows the watermen need both.
The watermen started making some noise last October, when they reported seeing dead fish with sores. Ten men later complained of headaches, memory loss, flu-like symptoms and sores themselves. Watermen typically don't tell the world if they get a headache; if a pontoon fell on their heads, they wouldn't complain. But these sores were something else.
"At a distance, the sores looked like bug bites," says Dr. Ritchie Shoemaker of Pocomoke City. A closer look revealed irregularly shaped open sores -- not terribly deep but certainly troubling. Shoemaker spoke up and often about his sick patients. But until the fish kill, he and others felt nobody was listening. But something was in the water. Nobody was making that up.
"For a long time, the state was lax in doing anything," Maddox says. "We wanted them to issue a warning in May, but they said the river is perfectly safe for swimming. That didn't cut it."